This is the first of a five-part series profiling the women of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. Today’s story is on Forrest Molinari, a 2018 world-team member.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Forrest Molinari’s first dream was to play football.
Entering her freshman year at Benicia High School in California, many of her childhood friends dreamed of becoming gridiron stars. She had similar aspirations — except, there was just one problem.
“I was like 95 pounds,” Molinari says now. “I grew up playing baseball, so all my friends were boys, and when we got to high school, they were going to play football, so I wanted to play, too. I just thought it was normal.”
“Linebacker,” she laughs, “so 95 pounds was not going to work for that.”
As it happens, Benicia's head football coach, Craig Holden, doubled as the Panthers’ wrestling coach. The summer before her freshman year, Holden drove Molinari to morning workouts at the high school. He proposed an idea.
“I said, you’re probably not going to do very well as a 95-pound linebacker,” Holden recalls, “but I do have a sport for you and it starts in November.
“And the rest is history.”
Since then, Molinari has blossomed into one of the country’s best women's freestyle talents. She’s one of five women that train with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.
Molinari’s still-budding résumé includes multiple age-level world teams as well as domestic and international success. She made the Senior World Team last year at 65 kilograms (143 pounds) and came one point shy of earning a bronze medal. She's just 23 years old.
Beginning with next week’s U.S. Open in Las Vegas — the national championships for freestyle and Greco-Roman — Molinari will take the first step toward what she hopes will be another world team, meaning another opportunity for world-level success.
“I’m more motivated now than ever,” she says. “I got a taste of it. I made the team. I got to see the world championships and compete. I just barely missed out on a bronze medal, on criteria. That was a tough pill to swallow.
“I’m more motivated now than ever. I’m ready to show my stuff and go get that gold medal.”
In a recent moment of reflection, Molinari laughs at her early wrestling days. Before Holden’s suggestion, she had never heard of the sport. She didn’t know what a mat looks like. She wasn’t aware of the college opportunities or the Olympics.
That world-stage potential captured her attention in ways other sports did not. Molinari was drawn to wrestling because of the seemingly endless hours of work required for success. She struggled at first, but found joy in the everyday grind.
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“I used to get beat up bad,” Molinari says. “They would bring in middle schoolers because there was no one my size. I’d still get beat up.
“But I loved it. I liked how hard it was. I remember, one day, I was running sprints and I just thought, I have never done something this difficult in my whole life.”
But she kept returning. Holden said Molinari attended tournaments even when she wasn’t wrestling, meeting the team at the bus at 4:30 a.m. and absorbing the action from the stands. The coach said he could count on one hand how many practices she missed in four years.
The California Interscholastic Federation added girls’ wrestling ahead of the 2010-11 scholastic year, when Molinari was a sophomore. State participation has grown from 1,493 girls’ wrestlers in 2009-10 to 5,286 last year, according to numbers from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Girls’ wrestling is one of the fastest growing sports in the country.
“It’s unbelievable how fast it’s growing,” Molinari says. “When I go back to California now, all the schools I used to wrestle have full girls teams, and I was there just six years ago. It’s great to see. I’m happy for it. I hope it keeps going.”
The addition allowed girls to wrestle other girls rather than boys. Molinari flourished. She graduated from Benicia in 2013 as a two-time state medalist. She parlayed that into a college scholarship, first at Missouri Baptist, then at King University. She became a four-time Women’s College Wrestling Association All-American. She won a national title in 2016.
“By her junior year in high school, she was a rockstar,” Holden says. “People knew who she was. At tournaments, people stopped to watch her. She was signing autographs for little kids.”
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The same year as her national title, Molinari competed at the Olympic Trials in Iowa City, where she placed fourth. Her performance — a 4-1 record with a pin and technical fall — foreshadowed her more-recent success.
She’s twice made the U23 world team. She won gold at the 2018 Pan-American Championships. She turned a fifth-place U.S. Open finish in 2017 into a runner-up showing last year, losing 5-0 to past King teammate Julia Salata in the finals. Two months later, at Final X, she beat Salata twice by a combined score of 15-2 to qualify for her first senior world team.
“That’s a considerable jump,” said Terry Steiner, coach of the U.S. women’s national team and a former Iowa wrestler. “The most encouraging things were the adjustments she made from the Open to Final X. In that timeframe, she made some really good adjustments and that put her on the team."
Molinari’s first opportunity comes in Las Vegas. Her sights are set on her first U.S. Open crown, which would position her for another shot at the world team.
A realization sets in and she laughs — Molinari probably couldn’t have done any of this if she had stuck with football.
“When I first started, I had no idea how far wrestling could take me, or that I’d still be wrestling all these years later," Molinari says. "I love it.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
OTHER HAWKEYE WRESTLING CLUB WOMEN'S WRESTLERS STORIES
FORREST MOLINARI RÉSUMÉ
- 2018 Senior World Team
- 2018 U23 World Team
- 2018 Pan-American gold medalist
- 2018 U.S. Open runner-up
- 2017 U23 World Team
- 2017 Pan-American bronze medalist
- 2016 WCWA national champion
- 2015 Junior World Team